Healthy wetlands vital for sustainable cities
Sidharth Kaul, president, Wetlands International South Asia and Ritesh Kumar, director, Wetlands International South Asia.
Rapid urbanisation is a vital component of India's economic development story. Wetlands - ecosystems at the interface of land and water - play a crucial role in making the cities and towns viable by helping in groundwater recharge, buffering floods, filtering wastewater, regulating microclimate, enhancing landscapes.
An assessment of Wetland International South Asia (WISA) indicates that nearly 8% of the total wetland area (15.26 million HA as per the National Wetlands Atlas) is situated within the urban sprawls. Water and wetlands have played an important role in shaping India's settlement patterns, and shaping economies.
For several cities, wetlands were the primary source of water and continue to be so, as reflected in the moniker city of lakes given to Bhopal, Bangalore, Udaipur, and many others.
The water storage in the Yamuna floodplains has been estimated to be equivalent to three-fourths of Delhi's water supply. In waste recycling system of East Kolkata Wetlands treats nearly 65% of Kolkata's wastewater, saving nearly ₹4,600 million annually in terms of the avoided treatment cost.
Wetlands act as major flood defence systems for cities such as Srinagar and Guwahati. There has been an age-old tradition of constructing tanks to store rainwater for irrigation and domestic water supply in the hard rock Deccan Plains.
Urban wetlands are also significant cultural and recreational avenues. The backwaters of Kerala are visited by over 0.3 million tourists annually, generating an annual economy of ₹600 crore. Urban wetlands, despite being located in high disturbance settings, harbour diverse plant and animal life. Several of these are habitats of migratory birds. Thane Creek, for instance, is known as a significant congregation site for flamingos.
While built-up spaces within urban areas have increased, the wetland areas have undergone a drastic decline. WISA analysis of data from 76 cities and towns has indicated that during 1980-2015, while the built-up area increased by 285%, wetlands declined by 21%. The most rapid loss was in the metros.
With not more than one-fifth of million municipal solid waste treated in the country, wetlands have become the ultimate waste dumps. It is no surprise that waste dumps of several cities are located within wetlands –Pallikarnai in Chennai, Dhapa in Kolkata, New Bhalsawa in New Delhi, and Deepor Beel in Guwahati.
Urban areas tend to alter hydrological regimes in diverse ways. As the built-up surface increases, the run-off also increases, along with an exponential increase in water demand and generation of wastewater.
With wetlands being lost in urban areas and extreme climate events being the new normal, pluvial floods are becoming more common. As floodwater accumulates in low-lying areas as wetlands, infrastructure created on encroached wetland areas and feeder channels become exposed to flooding risks.
This has been evidenced in several cases, such as the Kashmir deluge of September 2014, Chennai floods of November-December 2015, the Kerala floods of August 2018, and floods in Gurgaon and Hyderabad in 2020.
Unfortunately, reconstruction efforts post-floods have not considered restoration of wetlands and their feeder channels as a recovery measure.
Within the federal set-up, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is the nodal organisation in the country for issues related to wetlands. With India becoming a party to the Ramsar Convention in 1982 and MoEF&CC being established in 1985, a national programming framework for wetlands was implemented in as early as 1986.
Presently, protection of wetlands supported by the ministry under various schemes includes 250 sites. India has also designated 47 wetlands as Ramsar Sites, of which as many as eight are located within urban and peri-urban spaces.
Besides the MoEFCC, funding support to wetlands is also provided under programmes of several ministries, notably the Jal Shakti Mantralya, ministry of housing and urban affairs (under the Smart Cities Mission).
The Government of India also announced Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The rules constitute wetlands authorities within states and union territories. Unfortunately, the policy, programming, and regulations are yet to be implemented in full spirit.
Wetlands are often managed with singular sectoral approaches, such as recreation and amenity values, fisheries, and water storage. The complex drivers of wetlands degradation cannot be addressed by piecemeal, sectoral approaches, which do not always address long-term concerns.
India's dominant urban planning approaches have been infrastructure-dominated so far, enabling tapping upstream sources for meeting water needs and sending waste and run-off downstream in the shortest possible time. With catchments highly fragmented, in several cases, drained wetlands are filled up with untreated and treated sewage, and touted as restoration projects.
The limitations of such approaches are evident in cities being increasingly parched, exposed to floods and droughts, and increasingly water insecure. Management of wetlands within the boundary of urban areas is often missed out within these approaches.
There are increasing trends of urban agglomerations worldwide, integrating wetlands restoration within their urban plans and processes.
The Sponge Cities model, adopted in several Chinese cities like Shanghai, has replaced cemented pavements with wetlands as an ecologically friendly alternative to traditional flood defences and drainage systems for the coastal City facing risks from rising sea levels. The Văcărești Nature Park, a 183-hectare urban wetland of Bucharest, provides a green lung to the built-up city surrounding the site.
In the Banten Bay area of Jakarta, a consortium of environmental organisations, including Wetlands International and engineering firms, are using wetlands as natural infrastructure solutions to prevent coastal erosion.
The Room for the River Programme of the Netherlands and Germany is an ambitious river restoration programme, which includes rejuvenating floodplains and the creation of additional wetland habitats to buffer the urban areas from flooding and risk of a dyke collapse.
The future of urban wetlands is closely linked to how these ecosystems are integrated within urban development. Wetlands need to be recognized as natural infrastructure solutions for urban development. The solutions are multifaceted:
The national wetlands inventory needs to be updated at least once every decade to know the trends in these ecosystems. The inventory data needs to enriched from recording not just wetlands extent, but also wetlands condition, threats and management.
Recording wetlands as a separate land-use class can be instrumental in thwarting the threats of wetlands encroachment and conversion. Urban wetlands need to be properly delineated and notified under extant regulation.
Urban planners need to integrate wetlands within the town and country plans, with due consideration of their connectivity across landscape.
Urban wetlands need to be managed in an integrated manner at the catchment scale, considering their ecological, hydrological, and socioeconomic features and factors governing these features. Improving the connectivity of wetlands with catchments flows in particular is critical. Natural shorelines should be maintained and concretisation prevented. Untreated sewage should not be drained into the wetlands.
Urban local bodies, resident welfare committees, and civil society should be meaningfully engaged in managing and restoring urban wetlands. This could be done through sensitisation, behavioural change communication, education, and awareness campaigns.
There are just basic pointers for the management and preservation of urban wetlands. The central and state governments need to emulate ideas from different parts of the world to preserve India's valuable urban wetland resources that are on the decline.
(Sidharth Kaul, president, Wetlands International South Asia and Ritesh Kumar, director, Wetlands International South Asia.)
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